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I'm a Computer Science graduate student enrolled in a US University. In a class I'm currently taking, the professor has just given us a strange assignment. The professor works full-time in industry and is teaching classes at the University by night.

He has given us a piece of legacy code from the company where he works, which he doesn't have time to deal with. Our assignment is to optimize this piece of code for him. For full credit, we must obtain a 10% performance increase, but the professor isn't sure that this is even possible. He has also stated that he will take the best solution and use it in his commercial applications at work.

Additionally, the professor has offered cash prizes for the top 4 or 5 students, ranging from $50 - $400.

I have several issues with this:

  1. A successful assignment is going to require something new and/or novel to accomplish it, since the professor isn't sure how to do it himself. I'm not ok with just giving him and his company the copyright and other IP rights to the code I create to do this.

  2. There's no direct educational goal associated with this assignment. He's simply offloading work he doesn't have time for or can't accomplish to his class.

  3. To me, it seems unethical to try to monetarily incentivize the class to perform better at the work.

My questions:

Are my concerns legitimate and should I get my adviser or the department head involved?

Is there some way I can opt out of the assignment and request an alternative assignment to complete, based on my IP concerns?

Update:

I checked my university's IP policy and students do indeed retain all rights to works created without financial backing from the university. Also, it seems other students had similar concerns and got the department involved before I even had a chance to. The department had the professor alter the assignment so that the requirements were more clearly defined and he doesn't stand to gain much from students answers.

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    I agree that there are big ethical issues here but I disagree with (2) that there is no opportunity for learning. In fact, this sounds like a more useful and realistic learning opportunity than most class assignments. – Benjamin Mako Hill Feb 20 '15 at 5:37
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    Graduate students are supposed to be able to accomplish the new and novel, at least within reason. There are some problems with what you describe, but that's not one of them. – Bob Brown Feb 20 '15 at 5:50
  • It's not that I can't accomplish the new and novel, or that I think we shouldn't have to. My issue is that when I do, his company is going to claim ownership of it. – Tubs Feb 20 '15 at 16:09
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    related: academia.stackexchange.com/q/24526/10643 – Cape Code Feb 20 '15 at 17:12
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    I recommend that you check your university policy to confirm that you, as a student, retain copyright to your work. (Unfortunately, you can't assume that you do.) If you do, I would tell the professor you are not interested in the money, so there is no agreement of trading for your code. Next, if you retain copyright, I would submit a working piece of code with the copyright symbol affixed in the first line. (Not necessary, but recommended.) If you're not comfortable with this I would definitely approach the department head. – Ramrod Feb 21 '15 at 6:30
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You seem to be asking about two different things: (a) is it OK to assign coding assignments based on the instructor's real-world experience, and where the instructor isn't sure how to solve it himself? (b) is it OK for the instructor to use your solution/your code in his company, without your permission? You should keep them separate, as they're likely to have very different answers.

Is it OK to assign this sort of assignment? Yes, absolutely! It sounds like it could potentially be a great project, if designed well. A course project that's based on a real-world problem? Sounds wonderful. The instructor isn't sure what the best way to solve it will be? Open-ended projects can be great, too, as a way to boost creativity.

Of course, it's the instructors responsibility to design the course project so it will inspire learning and meet the pedagogical goals of the course, but nothing about "based on the instructor's real-world experience" or "the instructor doesn't know how to solve it himself" is incompatible with that (and those could even be beneficial features). So, your negative reaction to that aspect is unjustified.

Is it OK for the instructor to use your solution in his company, without your permission? Almost certainly not. There are both ethical and legal concerns.

From an ethical standpoint, this seems like a potential abuse of the instructor's position of power.

From a legal standpoint, this could run into intellectual property issues for the company. At the university I am most familiar with, the university has an official policy on copyright. It explicitly states that student coursework remains the student's property: the student retains copyright in essays, code, etc. that they write in their course.

So, look into your university's official policy. If the university has a similar policy, then the situation is very clear: this is a great assignment, and the instructor has every right to offer this assignment -- but he cannot use your code at his company (without a written signed agreement from you transferring copyright, and it would of course be highly improper for him to expect/demand this as a requirement of the course).

Also, depending upon laws in your jurisdiction, it's possible that this abuse of the instructor's position of power could itself pose legal issues.

In his enthusiasm, your instructor might not have realized these issues or thought through them very carefully. Don't assume bad faith -- this could well be a situation where the instructor saw a great opportunity for learning, and failed to recognize the issues with this aspect of the assignment. I'd suggest you start by talking to the instructor in person and very respectfully having a discussion about this: you could start by mentioning that you are not comfortable with him using your code for anything beyond the course, and his statement that he would use solutions makes you uncomfortable. Have a meeting in person -- an email is too easy to misconstrue. Assume good faith, share your concerns, and see what he has to say. It's possible that this might be a misunderstanding or that he might be entirely receptive to your concerns.

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    @cbeleites, ahh, thank you, that helps me understand what you are saying. My fault: I misunderstood what you meant by "this". I added a sentence to my answer to try to incorporate your observation -- see if I captured your point accurately or not. Yes, you are very welcome to edit my answer -- feel free. Thank you for the helpful comments! – D.W. Feb 25 '15 at 0:05
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You stated:

I'm not ok with just giving him and his company the copyright

I sounds like you would not be giving but rather trading your code for the prize money. As ctokelly wrote in another answer, you should check your university's IP rules for code created as coursework and who holds the copyright. It might not even be yours to begin with (but do not assume either way - check).

Selling custom code happens all the time but I agree, you should not be forced into participating. I applaud the prof's use of real-world examples in order to teach students. I suspect if you approach your prof with your concern, he would find a solution to your concern (like giving you an alternate assignment or simply not taking the copyright). That said, practicing on real-world problems is always good (even if you feel you do not want to submit your solution).

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    I guess technically it is trading the code, but the terms of the trade are being forced on me because it's being given as an assignment for grade. What I create could potentially be worth far more than $400. – Tubs Feb 20 '15 at 16:13
  • @Tubs I understand and as I wrote, you should not be forced to participate. However, you may see a solution that requires 1 hour of your time, resulting in a $400 hourly rate (which is extremely high for custom coding). – earthling Feb 20 '15 at 20:50
  • The possibility of a stroke of genius is not typically a factor to determine the value of some work. And if this stroke of genius happens, it usually increases the value. – cbeleites supports Monica Feb 24 '15 at 21:49
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Your institution will likely have a policy on IP and assignments so that might be worth exploring. The IP will likely either rest with you or with the university itself, or with you but with conditions (such as you accepting the work be submitted to plagiarism checking software and the like).

Either way, it's possible that your institution would have something to say about professors using their professorial time for private gain.

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  • I totally agree that this has a smell of abusing power maybe even extracting benefits.

  • But then you should never use conspiracy theories to explain things that may just be thoughtless.

All the rest of this answer depends very much on your legislation. I'm stating guesses (IANAL) from a German perspective.

Copyright thougts:

  • I guess that whoever holds the copyright is most likely not the professor (i.e. probably the student, possibly [for Germany: very unlikely] the university). So the professor needs to obtain a license to use the assignment code in their application.
  • But: copyright is about the actual work = actual code. The idea behind is not covered by copyright. So using someone else's algorithm for an application with their own implementation is usually legal (unless the algorithm is patented).

Ethics and related legal stuff:

  • But: doing this in an exam-like situation may constitute abuse of power, because the students are not free to decide whether they tell the professor of their solution: the grading assignment forces them to reveal their best idea. Thus, they are not in an equal position.
    I really have no idea about the legal situation this, but I could imagine that this could lead to a special protection of the student IP (something along the lines of unconscionability).

  • The assignments need to be graded before the prize money could be offered to any particular student. If something like a license agreement plus "prize" is "offered" after student already received the mark, the student may be in an equal position for negotiation again.

  • On the other hand, if the grading is not the final mark, and/or there is a chance to encounter the professor in other lectures, the professor may violate their duty (Germany) to avoid everything that could cast a suspicion of extracting benefits/undue pressure.

  • Note that a copyright transfer without proper compensation may be void, at the very least in a situation where the professor's side can dictate the price.

  • Putting the students under undue pressure in an exam-like situation may anyways void all kinds of agreements (e.g. license agreements before the assignment is graded).

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